Books That Puzzled Me

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I’ve finished a few books lately which left me intrigued but unsure of my own feelings about them. While I cannot say I disliked them, I’m not quite sure I would say that I liked them either. And if I were to reread them, it would be not so much out of love for the book, but because I want to see if I can understand what the author is trying to achieve the second time around.

In conclusion, these are books that I admire for what they are attempting to do, but I’m not quite sure they have succeeded in doing it for this particular reader. In some cases, I have to admit that I haven’t got a clue if I am interpreting them correctly at all. Not that it matters.

Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square

The book starts out conventionally enough, almost like a thriller. Jean Mason is a bookshop owner in downtown Toronto, happily married (although there are indications that there is sourness beneath the bliss), mother of two kids. When customers start telling her that she seems to have a doppelgänger who is wandering around the Kensington Market area, she has to try and find out more. She starts a stakeout in Bellevue Square, and although she never catches a glimpse of her alter ego, who is supposedly called Ingrid, she soon befriends all of the eccentric characters, scam artists, homeless people, druggies and so on that populate the area.

Bellevue Square before its demolition.

Jean befriends Katerina, a waitress at a churros shop, who seems to have a close, but not always friendly relationship with the elusive Ingrid. Then Katerina is found dead and Jean begins to wonder if Ingrid killed her. Up to this point, you could visualise this as a Hitchcock film, following Jean’s desperate attempt to prove that she is not the murderer even when all fingers are pointing accusingly at her.

But the book veers into unpredictable territory here. We discover that Jean has a troubled background and mental health issues, and we start to wonder just what is real and what is fantasy. Of course, the theme of the ‘doppelgänger’ as an evil twin or the darker side of the same person is very well established in literature (A Tale of Two Cities, Dostoevsky’s The Double, Jekyll and Hyde, and of course Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James have eerie ghost stories about doubles). But it gets even more complicated and meta, with past tragedies resurfacing and pseudonyms appearing for Ingrid which indicate that she might be an alter ego for the author. 

The refurbished Bellevue Square has a distinctly more family-friendly vibe

So I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this, but quite enjoyed the journey (and the description of a certain part of Toronto). Redhill is planning a triptych of novels entitled Modern Ghosts, of which this is the first, and the term ‘ghosts’ fits in very well with what Poe and James were doing.


Rachel Cusk: Kudos

I’ve been fascinated by Cusk’s trilogy, which started with a Greek Odyssey in Outline, turned into a London obsession with property prices in Transit, and now concludes with a conference or literary festival being held someplace that could be Sicily or Portugal. As usual, her protagonist Faye is such a good listener that she almost disappears from the narrative. This culminates in a very funny moment when she is being interviewed by a series of journalists, who all end up talking more about themselves than trying to find out anything about her or her work.

This final volume is more combative and political in tone. There are much sharper observations about parenting, which were almost curiously absent from the first two books. There is a particularly touching scene, which the author handles almost in passing, where Faye admits that her son often wished he could belong to another family when he was younger. Above all, however, it’s quite a battle of the sexes which emerges here, all the more ferocious because it is not explicitly endorsed by the narrator, merely expressed by other women she encounters.

I quickly came to see… that in fact there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife… is close to the drama and poetry of life than he is, because as Louise Bourgeois shows us she is capable at least of holding more than one perspective. And it was true.. that a number of girls were achieving academic success and cultivating professional ambitions, to the extent that people had begun to feel sorry for these average boys and to worry that their feelings were being hurt. Yet, if you looked only a little way ahead, … you could see that the girls’ ambitions led nowhere, like the roads you often find yourself on in this country, that start off new and wide and smooth and then simply stop in the middle of nowhere, because the government ran out of money to finish building them

Rachel Cusk: Kudos, p. 192.

I loved the way the book incites me to think and the very vivid vignettes of encounters – as I said before, I find it great anthropological material, but I have my doubts about how it all hangs together and cannot help wondering if it’s just lazy editing by the author herself. (I felt there was more of a pattern to Tokarczuk’s Flights, in case you were wondering). As for the ending – that was so viscerally unpleasant, it very nearly spoilt the whole trilogy for me (although it fits in well with the Battle of the Sexes idea).


Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett: Naked Men

Well, if you want a full-on battle between the sexes and a bit of a reversal of roles, then this book is for you! It’s about middle-aged women who are wealthy enough to pay for male escorts and about men who in the austerity economy of Spain are taking on jobs as strippers and escorts. 

Irene is an odd, cold fish, a Daddy’s girl who has obediently taken over the helm at her father’s company after his death, and married for comfort and business sense rather than for passion. When her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she doesn’t really go off the rails. Or at least not at first. Because she never felt much passion, she doesn’t feel much despair, more of a wounded ego and not wanting to give her so-called the satisfaction of gossiping about her. Meanwhile, Javier is a bit of a loser, an unemployed supply teacher with ideals that fit better into his vast collection of books rather than real life. This mismatched pair will eventually get together, but it takes far too long to get to that point, and the ending is far too abrupt and rushed. 

Although the book had some interesting things to say about social class and gender differences, and although it was quite funny in parts (that passage about moving all of Javier’s books!), it felt like 90% build-up, 10% story and then only 0.0001% denouement. And, despite the extensive build-up, the psychological motivation for what happens at the end still seemed wrong. There was also the odd head-hopping that occurs throughout the book – which keeps you on your toes, as you have to figure out who is thinking that next paragraph in a scene of dialogue. I also have to admit that I was far more interested in the secondary characters, Javier’s down-to-earth friend Ivan and Irene’s more uninhibited friend Genoveva. 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, John Grant?

John Grant author photo (Meteor Crater, Arizona) (1)Nothing like shaking things up a bit, so it’s Wednesday rather than Monday this time for my customary questions about reading passions.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you today to a very prolific author and dynamic blogger, Paul Barnett. Under the name John Grant, Paul is an award-winning writer and editor, born in Aberdeen, Scotland but now living in New Jersey, USA. He has written more than twenty-five fiction books (mainly in the fantasy genre but also a couple of fantasy/crime crossovers) and non-fiction books on an eye-watering variety of subjects, such as Walt Disney’s animated characters, crank and corrupted science, fantasy and science fiction and, most recently, film noir. His second story collection, Tell No Lies, was published just before Christmas. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award, and a number of other awards. You can find out more about John Grant and his books on his website, but I personally got to know him via his insightful reviews of films noirs. I was also delighted by his wry humour when commenting on this blog. You can also find Paul/John on Twitter @noircyclopedia.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

The first time I got hooked on crime fiction was probably through reading Sherlock Holmes stories during childhood. My mum tried to get me to read Father Brown stories too, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy them as much.

Another milestone came when, still during childhood, I went with the family for a short B&B holiday in the north of Scotland. It was one of those places where there wasn’t much to do except go look at the cemetery. Even this bit of excitement was out, though, because it rained the whole time. I swiftly worked my way through all the reading material I’d brought with me, and then discovered there was precisely one other book in the B&B, presumably left behind by a previous guest. That book was Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and I can remember being most reluctant to read it. Aside from anything else, it wasn’t science fiction, which had become my genre of choice by then. But it was either read the novel or watch the rain on the windows, so in I plunged . . . and loved it. It didn’t entirely break me of my science fiction habit, but it meant that from then on there was the occasional crime novel tossed into the mix.

What really did it was something silly. By my late teens I was an editor at a book publisher on London’s Fleet Street. More or less just across the road was the St. Bride’s Public Library, which naturally became a haunt. The UK publisher Gollancz used to publish all of its science fiction and crime fiction in uniform yellow covers, which made it easy for me to find the stuff. It wasn’t long before I worked my way through all the Gollancz sf in the place, so I thought I might as well give those other Gollancz yellowjackets a go . . . One protracted binge later, plus another binge on Wilkie Collins, and crime fiction had become an important staple of my leisure reading. These past few years, in fact, it’s become predominant.

JG's shelves 2Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m really not picky, to be honest. I try to make sure there’s a good admixture of translated work in there, just so’s I’m not always reading the same old, same old. I’m not hugely fond of modern cozies, although I do enjoy reading (or rereading) Golden Age mysteries, many of which are of course cozies. I like pulp hardboiled, although I haven’t yet read nearly enough of it to feel I’ve got a proper grasp of the subgenre. Scandi noir has become a favorite too, although I’m off it a bit at the moment having read a few over the past year or so that really didn’t impress me. I used to enjoy noirish urban fantasy until it became all werewolf detectives and nymphomaniac vampires. I’ve written a few stories in that fantasy/noir borderland myself (sans the werewolves and vampires, of course!).

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Oh, lordy, that’s a difficult one. I guess it would have to be Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read last autumn. I don’t know if it’s the best crime novel I’ve read recently, but it really spoke to me. It’s a very long book, but I devoured it in just three or four days and loved every minute of it. A good English translation (by Sam Taylor), too. Last year I was also impressed by Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death — another long book! — and blown away by my discovery of Karin Alvtegen.

But I’m not very good at ranking things. If you asked me this same question in just a few hours’ time, I’d be adding a few books, consternated because I hadn’t thought of them first time round.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author (crime fiction) to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’m not a great reader of series, although there are exceptions (Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks books). Usually, though, I prefer standalones . . . and even with series books I generally leave a long enough gap between them so that they become in effect standalones. The one big exception to all this is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I gravitate towards these not just because of their near-uniform excellence but also, at least in part, precisely because of the series context. Mixing with Steve Carella and the rest of the gallant boys of the old Eight-Seven feels like coming home to me. In later years McBain was able to play all sorts of games using the basic format as a substrate — Fat Ollie’s Book, for example, is a marvelous piece of metafiction as well as hugely entertaining and funny — but I like the earlier ones too, where you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for. So, yes, that’s the series I’d take with me to my desert island. An additional advantage of this series is that it gives me lots of books to read! In fact, I’ve even written a crime/fantasy novella, The City in These Pages, as a (surreal) homage to Ed McBain.

All of that said, I’m not sure McBain is the single author I’d choose to take with me. He might just get pipped at the post by Wilkie Collins, another prolific writer. Collins’s novels, for all their ups and downs in terms of quality, have a capacity to engross me — in a very schoolboy way, really: mouth open, eyes wide, turning the pages eagerly . . . Besides, it’s far too long since last I read most of them, so they’d make a good choice.

JG's shelves 1What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

That’s another problematic one. My day job, as it were, is writing nonfiction books — such as (plug, plug) my recent YA book Debunk It! — and my research reading for these has to be pretty structured, as you can imagine. So I make it a matter of deliberate policy not to plan my leisure reading too far ahead. I have several bookcases full of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I enjoy browsing through these to select my next book on whim.

The big exception comes, of course, when I’ve borrowed books from the library. I know that I’ll soon be reading Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, recommended to me recently, because it has to go back to the library soonish. I’m trying to cut back on my library habit a bit, though, precisely because I enjoy not knowing what’s the next book I’ll read until I actually pick it out.

We recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader, so that’s likewise stuffed with goodies waiting for me. A lot of them are public-domain items from places like Gutenberg. A small part of the motivation for getting the tablet was that I’d become interested in expanding my horizons to encompass some of the mostly US crime/mystery writers of the early 20th century about whom until recently I’ve known virtually nothing: Isabel Ostrander, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart . . .

I also want to get round to having a second — and long overdue! — bite at G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Some fantasy/sf writers: Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones — both much missed — Tom Holt, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Charles De Lint. In nonfiction: Martin Gardner, Paul Davies. Others: George Eliot, George Gissing. I recommend my own books interminably, of course, but only to strangers who don’t know my home address and whom I think there’s little chance I’ll ever run into again.

Thank you very much, John (or should that be Paul?) for a very entertaining look at your reading passions and for adding a huge amount of new authors to my TBR list (and not just for crime fiction, either). I am glad to see some old favourites there too, such as Wilkie Collins, Ed McBain and Terry Pratchett. 

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. This series depends so much on your participation, so please, please let me know via Twitter or comments if you would like to share your criminal passions with us.